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Three geeks rescue a 50-year-old IBM 360 mainframe from an abandoned building (ibms360.co.uk)
361 points by MilnerRoute 60 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Their main problem will be finding card stock. When compiling, the binary object is output on punched cards. They will need lots of blank Hollerith cards for compiling and testing. Not a lot of places make punched cards anymore.

Also, need card punches for input: IBM 029, Univac 1701. Will also need ribbon for printing readable characters at top of card.

Card readers are high-maintenance equipment. The cards are fed at high speed with a picker knife that needs precise adjustment. The card stock is sensitive to humidity. If it swells, it doesn't go through the card reader.

I wrote Assembler in the 70's on Univac 9300 and 9400's, 360 clones.

I see small lots of cards on eBay for astronomical prices. They probably wouldn't even work because of swelling.

The 3 guys work at the National Museum of Computing in the UK. They may well have access to cards that they can use as templates.

Cards are widely available, even new.

Their main problem will be getting it running! For example: if there are germanium transistors in it, they often fail, and you can't get modern replacements easily.

Every board will need to be checked component by component and it will have to be powered up very carefully. Just getting everything connected together and damaged cables repaired will take a long time.

Not true! USSR produced germanium transistors much longer than the west. Large quantities are available on eBay. For example here they are being used for radio repair:


The main annoyance is the shipping delay.

One interesting thing I learned is that the metal can germanium transistors are often more reliable than the first generation of silicon transistors: those domed-top epoxy ones are all terrible.

Correct. For a Fuzz Factory guitar pedal I built instead of bought, everywhere I read online said to use the AC128 germanium transistors for a better sound. I got a pack off eBay for less than $10 shipped from the Czech Republic.

Couldn't you make something that emulates the punched card reader but just reads and writes them to files?

These actually exist (or used to) for paper tape.

Until the early 80's a lot of CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine tools (e.g., milling machines, lathes, planers, etc.) were programmed using paper tape. Large machine tools are built with literally tons of cast iron (cast iron has excellent vibration-damping characteristics and is a fairly good bearing material) and run for decades: there are still WW2-vintage machines labelled "PROPERTY OF WAR DEPARTMENT" humming along in small machine shops. Not surprisingly, the owners of expensive capital equipment didn't want to just up and buy new ones that were programmed by floppies or over RS232, etc. So an industry sprang up to convert the paper tape readers to take electronic inputs and emulate paper tape.

I remember at my first job, being approached by our PCB vendor who had a CNC drill that read paper tape. He was looking for a way to bypass the tape reader and input RS-274 drill data from a floppy drive. Would have been a fun project, but my boss passed on it.

In fact, there are a couple of small companies selling thumb drives with IDE interfaces that plug into the floppy drive port so you can load code on a thumb drive, but the machine thinks it's reading a floppy.

One of my first jobs was working with devices that emulated paper tape via a serial connection to talk to CNC machines that had a device installed into the old papertape reader to give it a serial port instead. G-Code was loaded by one of the old terminal emulator serial connect software (Procomm? Telix? I can't recall) via a cheap old PC and modem. The machine didn't know it wasn't paper tape. They will probably need to hack up something along the same lines to pretend to be a card printer/reader. Sounds like a job for a Raspberry Pi or similar.

You don't need special hardware at all to read punchcards now that I think about it.

It would be a machine vision project to build a punchcard reader that takes images from a camera, flatbed scanner, etc.

Could you not cut your own cards with a hobby die-cutting machine? I have some old punch cards and a Sillohouette Curio, I don't see why it couldn't work given a good sharp blade and a fresh cutting mat. That kind of cardstock cuts like butter, too.

The IBM 360/20 is very limited. It's punched cards in and out. But the IBM 360/125 has disks and communications.

Getting it working, though. Huge job. It's taken years to get the IBM 1401 machines at the Computer Museum in Mountain View running, and they have help from some of the designers and maintenance people.

While studying Comp Sci at University of Toronto in the early 70s, I recall the 360/20 was used as a node to connect suburban colleges (Erindale and Scarborough) to the "mainframe", which was a 360/65 (I believe).

We would iterate from the keypunch room, to the 360/20's card reader, and wait for the mainframe to process our code and transmit the code output to the local printer, for review at tables large enough to page through fan-fold paper, to check and mark-up the code. Back then, we didn't need watches to remind us to stand up and walk around every 30 minutes -- the coding workflow forced us to!

Reading the Principles of Operations for the 360/20, the processor was supported half-word (16 bit), and had no floating point, but support packed decimal numbers. Our machine had 16K.

It was great to see the article -- made me reminisce about the days of me carrying boxes of punch cards and inches of output back and forth to my residence.

When I was going to Uni my professor was strict about the fact that we could not use compilers/computers during our programming tests.

We had to physically write out code on paper.

I was really pissed about this at the time and felt it was antiquated.

His argument was at least we didn't have to deal with punch cards.

When he was a kid he would MAIL in his punch cards that he built at home and would have to pay for their execution so he would often have to wait 2-3 weeks for the results to come back.

Given sufficient motivation, I expect it would be possible to replace the card reader and punch with something a little more modern. It wouldn't be period-correct, but it would provide a more convenient way to get data into and out of the machine.

Frankly while the machine itself is interesting, what I'm really interested in is what they find on those tapes and disk packs!

I wonder if they have a Twitter feed or mailing list to keep updated on their progress. This is a really cool "barn find".

> I expect it would be possible to replace the card reader and punch with something a little more modern.

The card reader/punch are part of the charm of something like this, though -- that immediate physicality is a real "oh, wow, so THIS is how it works" kind of moment that you can sort of follow up to records, floppy disks, and CDs.

Plus, I imagine if people could make their own little programs through a more modern interface that made the cards, those would make cool souvenirs that might help finance the museum a bit.

"Something a little more modern" - I think a simple interface would be real useful to get the processor working without the cards and printer. It could be the first phase of the project. In the end you want the whole thing to work, if that is at all possible of course.

Maybe this is a good thing: fewer things to get working.

My late father started collecting antique cars in the forties. I used to read his car collector magazines as a kid. They would have detailed stories about 'barn finds' of rare autos and this story reads like the best of them.

I well remember Michigan State's IBM 360 in the computer center back in the seventies. You could see it through glass windows from the hall, they were so proud of that machine.

Universities were very proud of their computers indeed. At my university too, there was a room with a big window to allow visitors to see the blinking lights on our Connection Machine (CM2)

Still our. I work for a uni. We have five server rooms on display for people to come gawk at. The two important data centers are locked away, but these five don't really contain any data which require hiding so we have them on display.

Freshmen and visitors are always impressed.

Can they awk at them too?

I wonder if the main problem isn't the generational handover of the hobbyist's collection and knowledge. It probably isn't that hard to find someone who'll geek out on old pinball machines, radios, Linotype machines, cars, big honkin' mills and lathes, partly because they remember them when they were younger so there was a strong impression made. Domain knowledge can be ferreted out from some still-living people.

I was thinking about that while watching this guy and his 11 buildings of stuff:


In those sorts of hobbies, you see a great number of eBay listings containing a caveat along the lines of "estate sale lot, sold as seen". It's great (if somewhat ghoulish) for younger enthusiasts, because you can build a collection quite inexpensively.

I do worry about the loss of provenance. Knowing where an object came from is often more valuable than the object itself; that knowledge is often lost when a child or grandchild just wants to clear out the old man's junk.

What happened to your fathers collection? What cars were in it?

He gradually sold them off, sometimes to hire craftsmen to do work on his prized cars that he couldn't do. Things like upholstery and paint. The car he cared the most about and the last one he sold was his 1926 Wills Sainte Claire. My father sold the Wills Sainte Claire so that he could pay for college for my sister and me. But he remained a life long fan of C. Harold Wills and his company.

With the help of the Wills Sainte Claire museum I reunited my father with that car on his 100th birthday at Kellogg Center on the MSU campus. My dad did so much for me that it made me very proud to give him this much joy. It's the only time in my life that I ever totally stunned him. The classic car magazine,Hemmings, even did a story about it.


That's a fantastic story. Thank you. He looks so happy!


Apparently reality is too inconvenient for some people.

Apparently tact is too inconvenient for some people.

How do you want me to sugar coat it? This is what happens. I'm not going to dance around it because people find it uncomfortable.

When people amass collections of stuff that not everyone values as much as they do and do not include plans for how their heirs should liquidate it the heirs are flying by the seat of their pants and depending on the nature of the collection that often means it doesn't find a home with someone who will appreciate it. If it's something like restored classic cars of exotic firearms you can just send it to auction and it will find a good home with another collector but there's tons and tons of things that get thrown out because nobody knows how to connect with someone who wants them.

Are you suggesting I'm in the market?

Not even close. I just wondered what kind of cars were collected and where they ended up (museum, another private collector) mostly because it sounds like it may have been an interesting set. I just visited a car museum in Riga, Latvia and there were all kinds of interesting brands and vehicles that you'd only find there and nowhere else.

I'm glad some people take upon themselves to salvage important pieces of our past.

As the technology evolves extremely fast, it seems that traditional preservation & archeology institutions can't deal with these fast enough.

Salvaging IBM360s will probably have the same historical importance in only a few dozens of years.as 16-17th centuries artefacts today.

I know of several private initiative to save items of first era of home computing but salvaging industrial sized computers comes with severe logistics challenges, as these gentlemen demonstrated

Funny thing is that it seems that future archaeologists need to have a STEM background.

Well, current archeologists need to have a vast range of expertise (water management, cooking techniques, building & more)

I've watched a few days ago a documentary about ScanPyramids, a team of nuclear physicists that used their knowledge to perform non destructive exploration of Kheops Pyramid:


It could be argued that they're top of the line physicists AND archeologists at the same time :)

Not many antiques need a room the size of a small barn, air conditioning (or is it water cooling on this model?), and an industrial three-phase power supply.

You clearly don't spend much time around the Henry Ford Museum...

I own and maintain a small retro computing collection, which I've recently put on display in a museum setting in a popular city here in Europe, and one of the most common questions I get from folks paying a visit is: "Why?"

The best answer I can give is, "do you throw old books away when you're done reading them?" .. this always makes people think about it a little, and then I follow up with ".. well throwing away computers is like throwing away old books. Exept it took 10,000 barrels of oil to build the computer, another few thousand barrels of oil to get it to you, probably a few thousand while you used it, and it'll take another few thousand barrels to get rid of it while it rots".

Better to just keep it running and find a user. For every old, archaic, 'outdated' computer that people chuck into the land-fill for the sake of consumerist satisfaction, there are a thousand users who you don't know about who will put that thing to valid use. Find those users, don't throw away the computer.

Old computers never die - their users do!

To be fair, plenty of sufficiently old computers are so power hungry that they can be replaced with a modern device that pays its cost (even including many externalities) after only a brief period of operation.

The ones that are sufficiently different from modern platforms still need to be preserved.

You can argue that the real serious time is spent on the peripherals in order to read old media. I haven't seen a full list of formats for both computers and video tape (plus cards, paper tape, etc) but it has to be pretty big.

I've noticed looking through the site they have a gofundme to fund the return trip of the machine back to the UK. https://ibms360.co.uk/?page_id=384 .

This appears to be the building that contained the machines:


I found it via the "GlaserExpress" trailer that appears in a few pictures. I used to live nearby a decade ago.

I'm amazed that such a central space can be simply abandoned for decades.

I'm curious what is stored on all of those reels of tape they packed out. There was no obvious clues that I saw as to the previous use for those machines.

Reminds me of the kid that bought an IBM z890 mainframe and brought it to his basement. And got it to work! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45X4VP8CGtk

His presentation was seriously awesome! Thanks a lot.

It's not mentioned in the article (too obvious?), but for wondering: Seems like those computers where used by the sports manufacturer Puma (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puma_(brand))

Was wondering. But it still looks so weird, this little shop in the midst of all those apartment buildings. Shouldn't puma have been a little larger by that time? And why not Adidas?

From what I can see in the pictures, this seems like an annex to a larger building. I imagine that the computer was run by a division of the accounting / book keeping department. Assuming that in the old days there were only a few specialists who were trained in operating a computer, they might have created that space for the (real) nerds. Why not Adidas?! Adidas is a competitor, founded by the brother.

Not that I'm an expert in their history, but they were running one company together until some time after ww2 when they split up. So I was wondering if you saw something specific that hinted at puma. Afaik even today they still both have their HQ in the same city.

It could very well be that the previous owner was a collector who bought the machine from Puma, and set it up in that building to tinker with.

That seemed like a very permanent installation for someone who is just tinkering with the machine. Running all of the cables under false floor is a huge hassle and makes fixing problems harder.

Don't underestimate the amount of work a true tinkerer is willing to perform to get the system running 'as it should have been'.

But looking at the pictures of part 3 I have to conclude that the electrical installation was certainly not done professionally. In fact: the mains wiring wouldn't even pass inspection by German law.

So tinkerer or not, I doubt this was the place where this multi-million machine (in Deutsche Marks, that is) would have been installed originally.

At the 80s.. computer put into a otherwise useless room. Sounds smart and realistic even for a big manufacturer. They probably used it for some administrative stuff :)

I would very much like to know who owned it and what it was used for. and more importantly why it was just left to rot. It must have been worth something.

How can you tell?

I don't know how mkreis could tell but I did notice that in one of the photos you can distinctly see the Puma logo[1] and I thought it was curious. I guess this explains it.

[1] https://ibms360.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/DSC_0062-10...

It's the picture which duiker101 already pointed to, the description of the auction, which mentions a "Puma machine" and the fact that the room was cluttered with sports gear (mentioned in the article).

Additionally Puma was founded very close by and most likely the company was renting out / buying some office space for the accounting division.

It says in the linked article in the translated auction ad.

That linked with the logo would make sense.

Wow. I'm a mainframe dev who just turned 30 and this is the dream.

Sometimes I see old VAX or IBM machines given away in Europe but getting it transported to Sweden is an even bigger project than finding something that can be made working.

Hey, I know that in the begin of '00s, CCC (and/or CCCC) were running a VMS cluster on VAX and Alpha machines for fun. You could even peer with them. I don't know if they still do, but you might wanna look into such project(s). As for getting it shipped, old computers get sold regularly on eBay Germany ever since I been doing business there (the last 20 years or so). From Germany to Sweden shouldn't be too difficult.

If you can strap them to a couple euro pallets it shouldn't be too expensive to ship.

I plan on looking into that if I get a permanent contract (which comes with a pay raise) in a few weeks.

Would love to tinker with that, emulating OpenVMS, z/os etc on x86 gets boring after a while :D

Fantastic set of posts, its good to see this system being rescued for future generations! The National Museum of Computing for which these gentlemen volunteer is a great place, when I visited it the passion of the volunteers there was really evident, and seeing the likes of the Colossus and WITCH in working order and being demonstrated really is amazing.

I second that. It’s a fantastic day out

"Seltene Anlage" in this context does not translate to plant.

System or machine would be much better fits.

There are other meanings to the word "plant", including an industrial site and industrial machinery.

"Plant hire" amuses me, as it's not the hiring of greenery for the workplace, but the hiring of dump trunks, excavators etc.

I am picturing the lone gunmen from the xfiles trying to haul it up stairs now in some abandoned warehouse

While not nearly as cool, I spent the entirety of April cleaning out the house of a hoarder. Buried beneath 40 years of garbage, I found an Apple II computer, still it its original box, complete with stickers and an integer ROM card (also still in the original box). It was interesting to see one of the first computers I ever touched after all these years.

Just curious if that hoarder's house was J--- W------'s in California? He was a relative. Always heard about the house.

Ah, John William, yes, I remember him well.

Although curiously interesting I'm sure. Better to not doxx anyone. This is the internet.

Oh great that this found a new home. I was concerned that it would be scrapped when I saw the ebay listing.

I hope they have the DOS/VSE or whatever operating system that ran on them on backup or installed on the hard drive.

I remember 360's had a level you pulled called the IPL button. Initial Program Load.

It's been over a decade since I was responsible for an IBM 400/iSeries, but we still used the term "IPL" for firing up the machine. I bet it's still in use.

This is reminiscent of Connor Krukosky, who had the IBM z890 in xyr parents' basement.

I'll be honest, this was a much larger job than I had expected

Love all of the pictures. Great work!

The rest of the series:




The submitted url above was https://slashdot.org/story/19/05/19/2336249/three-geeks-resc.... We changed it to point to the original source.

These all give "Error establishing a database connection".

HN hug of death?

Most likely yes, it was working fine about 20min ago (0700GMT)

So it got a second Slashdotting :-)

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